June Squibb, 94, Is Our Most Exciting New Action Star

thelma june squibb
June Squibb, 94, Is Our Most Exciting Action StarCourtesy Magnolia Pictures

The must-watch action movie of the year doesn’t have any shootouts, Avengers, or Tom Cruise (okay, maybe a little Tom Cruise). What it does have is a 93-year-old grandmother named Thelma, who’s on a quest to get her money back after she gets scammed by telemarketers posing as her grandson. Starring Oscar nominee June Squibb, the indie comedy Thelma is not only a heartwarming take on famous action tropes—here, a scooter chase in a nursing home takes the place of the famous car chase—it’s also a poignant story that challenges our ageist assumptions and proves that our elderly loved ones deserve more autonomy than the rest of us, however well-meaning, might think.

At 94, this marks Squibb’s first leading performance in a film. It comes a little more than a decade after Nebraska, which earned her an Academy Award nomination; about 20 years after starring opposite Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt; and over three decades after her first screen role. Since then, there have been many TV and film appearances along the way, from Shameless, to The Young and the Restless, to Good Girls. But here, in Thelma, she got to perform her own stunts, whether it was cruising on a scooter with Shaft star Richard Roundtree (in one of his final performances) or rolling atop mattresses.

“Every time I see it, and I see the flames going up behind Richard and I walking away, I get tickled, I love that,” Squibb says.

The film, from first-time feature director Josh Margolin, premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January and became a crowd-pleaser. Now that it’s hitting theaters months later, ELLE.com checked in with the lead heroine.

“I’m tired,” Squibb laughs from her Manhattan hotel. “No, I feel great. At Sundance, we could not believe the love and just how everybody felt about the film. And it’s continued.”

Thelma is no swan song for Squibb either. “A friend of mine has written a script that she’s interested in me doing,” she says, teasing her future plans. “If I do, I think it’ll be September, October.” She is on a roll and not stopping soon. Here, she talks to ELLE.com about prepping for her stunts, combating ageism, and being a rule-breaker.

The story and the character of Thelma is based on director Josh Margolin’s actual grandmother. When you got the script, what was your reaction? And how did you talk to him about bringing this character to life?

My goodness, the script was great. It was not overwritten, which so many scripts are for film. And it made me want to do it immediately. So I told them yes, that I would do this. And so they had me sort of first in the list of, “Well, we’re doing this film, and we have June Squibb doing the lead.” And we were both just happy as could be about it. I couldn’t have been happier. And we shot it within, oh, I would say six months after that.

Do you consider yourself an action movie fan?

Oh, I am, yes, I love them. I think there was a period in my life when that’s all I saw. I just would go from one action movie [to another], whether it was in a theater or on television.

What were some of your favorites?

I loved the Mission: Impossible series. I have loved them from the beginning, and I’ve seen every one of them. And Bruce Willis, the work he did, especially his early films, were so wonderful. Just the physicality that he had was wonderful.

So what was it like for you to be able to do some of your own stunts and be an action hero in your own way? What kind of preparation went into that?

My assistant and I started doing Pilates. I have danced for years. And then I swam a lot in New York and in L.A. But I had never done Pilates. We started about a year before I started shooting, and it helped, it made a big difference. That was my preparation for the physicality. And when I read the script, I just thought that scooter [chase] just sounded great. I wanted to do it immediately.

And it just went from there. I just felt I could do this. And they were very leery of it because of my age basically. They had a wonderful stunt woman there who was ready to jump in. But I really ended up doing most of it.

That’s amazing. Do you have a favorite one that you performed?

I think the scooter, just riding with Richard Roundtree behind me all the time was pretty exciting. And then the bedrolls, I’m very proud of those bedrolls.

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

They were really great. Speaking of the late and great Richard Roundtree, do you have any fond memories with him on set?

Oh, so many. He was so wonderful. He was a really fine actor. And it was just such a joy playing the scenes with him from an acting standpoint. We all just fell in love with him. And his work ethic is wonderful. Everything about him was just so great. So we were all just devastated at his death. But I think that we’re also very proud to be with him in his last film.

Thelma is not only so enjoyable, but also has a very poignant message about how we treat the elderly in our families and communities. How did you feel about portraying that kind of message in the film?

I was very proud of what [Josh Margolin] had written in terms of age. I just think that he’s really hit it on the nose, that we are capable of—and I say “we” at my age—that we’re very capable of a lot more than people think we are. And we still have life to live. Also this thing about rules and laws, they are to be broken. That’s what I’ve always felt.

Is there anything about Thelma the character that you personally related to?

Her grit and determination. The fact that she was determined to do something and did it. I relate to that very much. I just feel that you have to sort of decide I’m either going to do it or I’m not going to do it. And then you either do it or you don’t do it. One or the other. I don’t know, I see that as pretty black and white.

I know you guys had to get permission to use some of the Mission: Impossible footage in the background of Thelma. Do you know if Tom Cruise has seen the film? Has he said anything about it?

No, he has not said anything that I know. And I think what I was told was we sent him a link, so he can see it whenever he wants. But we have not heard back from him. But he did give us the OK to use all those film clips that we did.

Maybe he’ll recruit you for the next Mission: Impossible.

[Laughs] I could, yes, I would love it. Are you kidding?

I also think the film is very timely in the wider scope. Women especially are told that it’s over for them at a certain age. We hear that there are certain things you have to accomplish by 30 or 40 or 50. But you have turned that misconception on its head so many times. You made your film debut at 60, you got your first Oscar nomination at 84, and now your first lead role here in Thelma. How do you respond to that?

I just think that all of those rules are ridiculous. There are no rules, especially in life. I think we make our own rules about how we want to spend our life, what we think we can do, or what we think we can’t do, I mean, that’s a part of it, too. But I’ve always felt that rules are just there to be broken. So there you go.

Is that something you’ve been told in this industry as well, that at a certain point you might get less opportunities?

Oh gosh, yes. And I grew up in the ’40s, so goodness, I was told that in life girls didn’t do this, girls didn’t do that, and girls can’t do this, can’t do that. As a kid, I fought it. And I think I still fight it. I think you still have to. I fight it now about age, and I fight it about sex. It’s insidious. But we do have to keep fighting it. And I think it’s wonderful that we, as women, are fighting it—and together in a way that we didn’t before.

Who were some women that you looked up to, whether it was in your career or otherwise?

There was a wonderful actress, Colleen Dewhurst, an American actress, who worked a lot when I first got to New York, which is in the ’50s-’60s. And I saw a lot of her work. It was always kind of, boy, I would like to be like Colleen when I grow up. She’s not with us, she died quite a while ago. But she did some wonderful work on stage, she did some film work, but not that much.

Speaking of the stage, you made your Broadway debut in Gypsy. I don’t know if you saw, but they’re doing a revival later this year.

I did see that, I read it in the paper. It’s been revived about six times, I think. I did see Tyne Daly do it, and then worked with her after that. So it was fun to have Gypsy stories between the two of us. And then [Ethel] Merman is the one I did it with, the original, and that was exciting. It’s a great, great show, I think it’s just brilliant.

What is your key to longevity?

I don’t really know. I guess, I eat pretty much whatever I want to, and I have a sweet tooth, so I’m sure way too much candy than I should. I have a martini when I have a nice dinner out, that’s my choice of drink. And I enjoy a glass of wine. But I really don’t know. I keep moving. And I live now in Los Angeles, and we’re usually out every day for some reason, going to a meeting or something.

Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

And how about when it comes to the longevity of your career? What has kept your passion alive for performing?

I think just doing it over [and over]. Everybody says you’re still learning lines, that to many people is like, how does that happen? But I think the fact that I keep doing it is what allows me to look at it [like], well, I could do it next week, I can do it next month, or next year. I think that’s what it is. I just have never stopped. Once I started, I never stopped. And I had a child, I was married twice. I mean, I’ve had a life. But I’ve also never not worked.

After a long day on set, what is your self-care routine once you get home?

I like to read for a little bit. I get The New York Times and The L.A. Times every day delivered to me. And I like to know that I have finished today’s papers, even if I finish them late in the day. So that’s a must for me. I usually do that before I go to bed.

I have two cats. If I’m gone a lot during the day, they need attention, they need talking to and petting and everything. So I do that. That’s pretty much it. It’s very simple. I don’t have a very involved life, it’s a very simple life.

What’s the best piece of career advice that you’ve ever received?

I think “find a good teacher.” I was told that and didn’t for years. And then when I did, it made a tremendous difference in my career. I think you do need guidance and mentorship.

Thelma is not the only project you have out right now; you also voiced Nostalgia in Inside Out 2. Is there anything you’re feeling nostalgic about these days?

Strangely enough, recently I’ve been thinking about where I grew up, Vandalia, Illinois. Someone the other night in the L.A. premiere yelled out, “I’m from Vandalia!” And I’ve been thinking about that so much now. Somebody we had worked with was there in Vandalia, and they said, “What was your exact address?” And we gave it to them. And they took a picture of the house I grew up in. So it was funny all at once. And I don’t usually think about Vandalia, but I sure have been recently.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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